The work of a little-known and geeky-sounding federal commission may hold the key to more effective policymaking and a renewed culture of bipartisanship in a badly divided Congress. Despite the daily Sturm und Drang coming out of the Capitol, a congressionally established commission has been quietly doing the public’s work.
The Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking has been studying the organization, structure, and protocols governing the vast stores of data collected by federal agencies, in part to identify unnecessary federal data-collection burdens placed on agencies and the public. For that data which is found essential, the goal is to make it useful for evaluating the effectiveness of federal policies and programs. The commission will issue its final report and recommendations in September.
While a government commission to study federal data and statistics may seem at best of interest to a relatively specialized group of program managers, researchers, and academics, it may be a key to one of the most difficult issues confronting Congress — political polarization.
The commission’s work and recommendations may provide a roadmap for Congress to restore a foundation for consensus-driven policy setting. The legislation establishing the commission represented a welcome display of bipartisanship. It was developed and co-sponsored by House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanJuan Williams: Pelosi shows her power Cheney takes shot at Trump: 'I like Republican presidents who win re-election' Cheney allies flock to her defense against Trump challenge MORE (R-Wisc.) and Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayUnder pressure, Democrats cut back spending Overnight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Colin Powell's death highlights risks for immunocompromised Senate Democrats ditch Hyde amendment for first time in decades MORE (D-Wash.), coming out of their work together as the Budget Committee chairs of their respective chambers in earlier Congresses.
The broad bipartisan support behind the legislation showed that lawmakers saw tremendous opportunity along with daunting challenges in the large and growing stores of administrative data held by federal agencies. Increasingly sophisticated and complex methods to analyze that data offer expanded options to evaluate federal programs.
Federal data accumulations are also an important building block in the emerging field of evidence-based policymaking — an approach that uses findings from scientifically designed research studies and program evaluations to measure whether programs achieve their stated goals.
Evidence-based research found, for example, that a well-designed program of home visiting by medical or social service professionals can measurably improve outcomes for the children of low-income families. This program — the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program — is up for reauthorization this year.
Programs to alleviate homelessness typically focus on providing temporary, emergency housing, but rigorous research has shown that programs that offer housing with supportive services to address mental health, substance abuse, and other health issues can lower overall public costs by decreasing the demand for emergency medical services by homeless individuals.
Recent evaluations show that reading programs using volunteer tutors are an effective, low-cost alternative to other, more expensive programs. Federal support of these and other evidence-based initiatives is helping to test whether these approaches should be used more widely.
Many states lead the federal government in applying rigorous evidence in their funding decisions. Active states focus on building a robust data infrastructure to link data sets held by different state agencies and make that data more easily accessible.
Evidence-based policymaking holds the potential to give lawmakers valuable metrics on the most effective approaches for delivering government services. While its application to date has been focused on efficient social interventions, the analytic tools can and should also be applied to the broader array of government spending and tax programs including defense, foreign assistance, and scientific investments.
Its targeted application can demonstrate when current programs are not working and guide lawmakers to make the difficult decision to redirect funds or even eliminate funds for programs that are not meeting their stated public goals.
As the commission studies and prepares to make recommendations on the optimal use of federal and other data for evidence-based policymaking, Congress should consider whether it is well-positioned to make optimal use of that data as well.
At the Bipartisan Policy Center, we are exploring ways that Congress can use data and rigorous evidence more effectively in the routine budget, authorization and appropriations process. It is important that Congress has a robust capacity to digest research and evaluations.
A commitment in Congress to evidence-based policymaking would require developing the technical capacity to objectively evaluate that evidence, having the leadership and resources to make the use of evidence a priority, and creating incentives for lawmakers to incorporate rigorous evidence and data into their legislative routines.
Bipartisan majorities in Congress have recently shown a strong interest in using data and rigorous research more widely to make sound policy and budget decisions. In addition to the commission, Congress has embedded evidence-based requirements for certain federal grants in the Every Student Succeeds Act. Bills that would create new statutory frameworks for an evidence-based approach to foster care services and social impact financing moved forward last year, passing the House by voice votes.
Embracing an evidence-based approach to policymaking holds the prospect for improving policy outcomes, but it may also better equip Congress to evaluate policies and proposals and make better budget decisions in an increasingly data-driven environment.
Taking this approach may just yield something that has eluded Congress in recent years — bipartisan, consensus-driven legislating.
Sandy Davis is a senior advisor at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
G. William Hoagland is a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.